Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A security regime for the Middle East

The pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East security regime is the best way to address Iranian and Israeli nuclear programmes while reassuring key regional players, writes Ezzedine Choukri Fishere

The Obama administration is bent on engaging Iran in a dialogue aimed at addressing the controversial aspects of its nuclear programme. Among other objectives, this dialogue should reduce the prospect of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel. It is unclear why the Obama administration would succeed where the combined American and European "incentive package" approach has failed. Iran deeply mistrusts the West and harbours a deep-seated sense of historical victimhood, which makes negotiating with its leaders a lengthy and complicated process. In addition to the fear of a US return to its ill-fated designs of regime change, Iran has serious strategic interests that will inevitably complicate its dialogue with the US: Israel's nuclear weapons, American presence in the Gulf, Iran's ambitions in the Middle East and its role in Central Asia are amongst these.

The Obama administration has neither the time nor the political capital to satisfy Iran's needs alone. According to Israeli sources, the US administration has a window of six to nine months to achieve results using both dialogue and sanctions. After this, Iran will cross a nuclear threshold that Israel considers intolerable. This barely-veiled threat means that Israel will resort to military means if US diplomacy towards Iran fails. The implications for regional stability could be quite disastrous.

Israel is not the only party that is nervous about US-Iranian dialogue. Arab states are watching carefully American overtures towards their Persian neighbour. From their perspective, American-Iranian dialogue is a continuation of the risky European approach, which was based on offering Iran regional "incentives" in return for ending some of its nuclear activities. Arab states are more concerned about Iran's regional ambition than about its nuclear programme; the latter is important only in so far that it constitutes an element in Iran's bid for hegemony in the Middle East. From where they stand, offering Iran more regional power in return for its uranium enrichment defeats the purpose of the exercise. As far as nuclear programmes go, most Arab states are more worried about Israel's nuclear arsenal than they are about Iran's nascent capabilities. Even if they wanted to, Arab leaders would find it politically difficult to cooperate with the US against Iran's nuclear activities while Israel's nuclear weapons are shielded from scrutiny.

To complicate things further, Israel is unlikely to discuss its nuclear activities unless all regional security threats are put on the table. In the multilateral security talks that followed the 1991 Madrid Conference, Israel adamantly refused to discuss its nuclear programme unless conventional threats from its neighbours were discussed first, and until conventional and unconventional threats emanating from Iraq and Iran were included in the discussion. The latter two states not being part of the Middle East peace process, their inclusion in the talks was not possible. The Multilateral Security Working Group eventually ceased to meet.

For US policy-makers, this would seem like a mess, and indeed it is. However, out of this mess there is opportunity. There is one thread that can pull all these loose parts together in a stable fashion: pursuing a comprehensive Middle East security regime.

The pursuit of a comprehensive security regime for the region should be a central component of the Obama administration's Middle East policy. The security concerns of Iran, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Gulf states, Syria and Turkey are mutually dependent and cannot be addressed separately. Rhetoric aside, their security concerns are not fundamentally incompatible. A comprehensive regime can offer each party the assurances that are vital to its security, and require it to provide assurances to others.

Naturally, such a regime is better built in stages, given the level of mistrust and animosity in the region. A good first stage could include confidence-building measures on both nuclear and conventional elements (i.e. including Israel's nuclear activities). For example, Iran could adhere to an x-month moratorium on uranium enrichment activities, with international verification. In return, Israel would agree to steps regarding its nuclear activities, such as opening its nuclear installations for international inspection. In parallel, Arab states, Iran, the US and Israel would start a multilateral discussion over comprehensive security principles, measures and arrangements, and consider taking specific confidence building measures.

This would stabilise the region while parties negotiated a second stage of security arrangements. Once a second stage was agreed, parties could consider further stages. Obviously, the chances of success of such a pursuit would be greatly enhanced if it were to become a component of a broader US strategy in the region that also includes an effective push towards an Arab-Israeli settlement.

By pursuing this goal, the Obama administration could fundamentally alter the security context in the Middle East. No other party has the needed assets to pursue this goal. And few other interventions could bring the US administration comparable immediate dividends.

Even if this goal were not fully achieved, the pursuit of a comprehensive security regime for the region would contribute to stabilising the balance of power in the region, prevent further deterioration, avoid a disastrous Israeli-Iranian confrontation, and lay the ground for a future regional security structure.

* Professor of International Relations at the American University in Cairo

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